An introduction to Archival Research
Ellen Belcher, Special Collections Librarian firstname.lastname@example.org
Archival repositories exist to provide resources for researchers! You have a right to use them!
Digital Archives - Remote Research in the age of COVID
- Some repositories are offering increased possibilities for remote research including more digitization, paging through collections via Zoom or similar applications and researcher directed research. All services should be announced on repositories websites. Check the finding aid and indexes in advance of making requests for such remote services so-as ask specific requests.
- You may need to alter your research project to currently available digital resources should it need to be completed in 2021.
- Volunteer as a Citizen Archivist to help the U.S. National Archives Click on a topic that interests you, and it will bring you right to those historical records in our Catalog. Tagging and transcribing makes these records more accessible to everyone. New missions are added and updated regularly, so check back often to see what’s new.
Physical Access to Archives. [May not be possible during the 2020-21 COVID Pandemic]
Anyone can be a researcher of primary materials (when it is possible to physically visit Archival repositories again). However, there are protocols which should be followed when becoming an archival researcher. Here are some tips.
- Read all available information on closings and services available on the repository's website. If the repository staff are still working remotely then all access, including remote access are not going to be available until it is safe for archival workers to return to the workplace.
- Arrive at the archival repository at the pre-arranged appointment time with recently washed hands, a pencil and paper and a list of what boxes and/or call numbers and titles of items you have requested.
- Read the finding aid(s), online indices and collection information before making an inquiry.
- Review examples of how archival research has been used in writings. Some examples are the works published from research in the John Jay Special Collections, especially our Criminal Trial Transcript Collection.
- Make an appointment as far in advance as possible. Be prepared with dates that you would like to come in and be mindful that most archival repositories are open for research during regular business hours.
- Check the digital and microfilm collections available from the repository – you may not be given access to originals that have already been reformatted. Most microfilm copies of originals are available by interlibrary loan. Such as the John Jay Criminal Transcripts of NY Collection
- Read secondary materials in advance to have basic information and research questions formed – ie: if there is a biography of the person who’s papers you are coming in to research, you should read it!
- Be prepared to conduct your research under supervision at a table with only a pencil and a few sheets of paper and wearing gloves. Wash your hands and obtain a pencil before you arrive. You may be required to check all bags, coats and other materials away from the study table.
- Know that photocopies and scans are usually done by archives staff, so cannot be done immediately and may cost a bit more than you are used to. Many repositories will not photocopy nor scan bound or fragile materials. Many repositories place limits on the amount of copies or scans that can be requested. You might be able to use a camera or phone to take pictures [no flash]. Try using an app to organize your phone pictures. Most smart phones can also create OCR scans with an app.
- Allow for time to sit and read the materials in the archival room and take notes by hand. Archival research takes time and is different to the sort of research we normally do in the 21st century.
- Ask about computer and camera use in advance - you might be permitted to use a computer or camera, but there might not be an available power source.
- Respect the labor of professional archivists and librarians, thank them and acknowledge them in your writing. Do not claim to have ‘discovered’ hidden treasures without their help. see: Implications of Archival Labor and 'The Archive' is not an Archives
- Some ‘archives’ do not have a physical location at all but are web-based, many of these are community archives and activist collections. Michelle Caswell writes on this sort of archive.
- Special notes on government repositories and agencies:
- Special notes on international research:
- If you are researching once colonialized countries, consider looking for materials in the national repositories of former colonizers such as The British Library.
- Archival Repositories like the Bibliothèque Nationale de France may require a fee for a reading card.
- Other foreign repositories may require letters of introduction (a letter in English may not be appropriate, you might need a translator), lengthy application processes. Some repositories close for extended times over the summer. Start your inquiries very early for foreign research.
Finding Archival and other Primary Materials
- WorldCat – the first step is to search your topic here, restricting to “Archival” and/or “Internet” (for digitally available materials)
- Secondary Sources – Archival materials used for articles and books are cited in the references – this is a great way to find repositories and collections to support your research.
- Google Search – The John Jay special collections gets most of our researchers through google searches!
Selected list of Archival Repositories in NYC
A Few Archival Repositories outside of NYC